Opening Japan’s Doors to Syrian Refugees

When a planeload of Syrian refugees landed in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted them with a smile and winter coats. It was a symbolic moment. Canada has promised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016, but with more than 12 million people affected by the Syrian civil war, governments across the world will need to open their borders to provide safe haven to the waves of displaced individuals.

Countries surrounding Syria have shouldered most of the burden, notwithstanding domestic controversy over how to approach the crisis. Turkey and Lebanon have taken on the majority of refugees, accepting 1.9 million and 1.1 million respectively. European countries have also shown readiness in accepting a large number of Syrian refugees. According to statistics for October from the German Federal Department for Migration and Refugees, Germany alone has provided refugee status to more than 57,000 Syrians so far this year.

But Asia is notably missing in the discussion of refugee settlement. China and India, Asia’s emerging economic powers, have not settled a single Syrian refugee to date, although China did offer US$16 million last year in humanitarian assistance to the refugees. In South Korea, only three Syrians have been granted refugee status since 2014. Malaysia is the only country in Asia to make a substantial commitment to take in refugees, recently pledging to accept 3,000 Syrian asylum seekers over the next three years.

Conspicuously absent from current global resettlement plans for displaced Syrians is Japan, a country with the resources and experience to accept refugees. The resettlement of Syrian refugees is an opportunity for Japan to not only demonstrate leadership on this issue in Asia, but also address some of its own future demographic challenges.

Japan’s policy response to the refugee crisis has focused on an “open wallet, closed door” approach. As the second-largest donor to the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, Japan announced this September that it would provide US$810 million to support refugees escaping Syria and Iraq. Yet from 2011 to September this year, only three out of 63 Syrians who applied for asylum in Japan successfully received refugee status. According to the Migration Policy Institute, one of the reasons for this low acceptance rate is the controversial refugee recognition system in Japan, which is considered rigid and restrictive because of its narrow definition of what constitutes a refugee and the concentration of power within a single governmental bureau over refugee-status determination.

Japan has some experience in economic migrants coming from the Middle East. In the early 1990s, 50,000 Iranians arrived in Japan to find work at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. While many left Japan in the late ‘90s because of changes in Japanese immigration legislation and the economic recession, more than 5,000 Iranians still remain in Japan. Lessons learned from the experience of resettling Iranians could be used to improve settlement of Syrian refugees into Japan this time around.

A more recent example is Japan’s participation in the pilot UNHCR Refugee Resettlement Program (RRP) that welcomed Karen refugees from Myanmar-Thai border refugee camps between 2010 and 2015. The pilot was successful in providing initial resettlement services, such as language training, survival courses, and job assignments, and the Japanese government this year decided to turn it into a full-fledged RRP. The RRP model could be a suitable program for Japan to begin accepting Syrian refugees, as it bypasses the limitations of Japan’s own refugee recognition system.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has argued that Japan must prioritize internal demographic issues over foreign ones, accepting skilled Syrian refugees could help the country ameliorate its demographic challenges. First, bringing in Syrian refugees could help with Japan’s decreasing birth rate and aging population. United Nations’ demographic data shows that Japan’s elderly (aged 65 and over) currently represent more than 25 per cent of Japan’s population and this number is forecasted to reach 36 per cent by 2050. [1] European countries that are facing similar aging issues have accepted migrants in order to grow their workforces. By July 2015, half of the migrants arriving in Germany were younger than 25. Just like Germany, Japan can select Syrian families and young married couples to help increase the dwindling birth rate and reduce the widening gap between youth and elderly. Second, President Abe has been promoting women empowerment in the workforce. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that female participation in the Japanese labour force is 66 per cent, far lower than in some other developed countries, such as Sweden, which is close to 80 per cent. [2] When selecting Syrian refugees through the RRP, Japan can choose more highly skilled female professionals in an effort to increase the percentage of females in the workforce. 

However, welcoming refugees never comes without consequences. Proper integration and acceptance into Japanese society will be a key obstacle to overcome. If Japan were to accept a greater number of Syrian refugees, it would need to adopt programs and policies that would help address any resulting social tensions from using scarce government resources to assist newcomers through resettlement services and programs, including Japanese language classes, housing and employment agencies, and loans and other financial assistance.

Opening Japan’s borders to Syrian refugees and implementing an RRP could help to alleviate the demographic crisis that Japan is facing, while providing a safe haven for Syrian refugees. If done properly, Japan’s RRP for Syrian refugees would bring more opportunities than risks. However, it remains to be seen if Japan will capitalize on this opportunity.


[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNESA), 2015. Percentage total population (both sexes combined) by broad age group, major area, region and country, 1950-2100.
[2] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2014. Labour force statistics by sex and age, 2000-2014.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.